The centrality of the town-country relation in the transition to capitalism in the West and more basically the equation of urbanism with capitalism and progress were already explicitly formulated in the earliest theories of the origins of capitalism—those of 18th-century political economy. For the proponents of the new and revolutionary ‘conjectural’ history of civil society—Smith, Steuart, Ferguson, Millar—the origins of division of labour and the market in the ‘commercial stage’ of civilization were to be sought in the separation of town and country. (The highland-lowland division in Scotland provided first-hand evidence.) The separation of production and consumption brought about by rural-urban exchange was the cause of that ‘revolution’ whereby the self-sufficiency of the rural economy is undermined by urban consumption patterns, destroying the static order of patriarchal authority based on landownership in which ‘consumption is not a reward but a price of subordination’.footnote1 This revolution was brought about entirely without foresight or intention, merely by the interaction of self-interests—gratification of ‘childish vanity’ on the part of the rural nobility, pursuit of gain by urban merchants—in other words by the free action of the exchange principle (man’s ‘natural propensity to barter and exchange’), realizing a higher unity out of the clash of separate interests in the market place. The progressive role of the market is thus realized: it destroys coercive bonds in the country, creates independence for rural commodity producers and establishes ‘regular government’ in place of internecine territorial feuds. The same principle of division of labour between specialized producers for the market simultaneously increases productivity in its application to manufacture. Moreover, in contrast to the physiocrats in France, for whom rent was the sole form of surplus value, the progress of agricultural productivity is a victory for urban capital over rural backwardness: ‘Cities, instead of being the effect, have been the cause and occasion of the improvement and cultivation of the country.’footnote2

The city is the dynamic principle of progress, the country inert and passive, requiring an external stimulus, the ‘market pull’ exerted by towns as concentrated nuclei of exchange transactions and capital wealth. This in turn provided a powerful underpinning for the ideology of the ascendant bourgeoisie: the victory of capitalism as the victory of urban civilization and the principles of market freedom.footnote3

But it is also evident that the subordination of the country to the capitalist ‘market’ has already in this case reached an advanced stage: Smith’s reference to the nobility dismissing their retinues as ‘unnecessary mouths’, when placed alongside the clearances in the Highlands, makes this clear. This example of total destruction of a rural economy and demographic recomposition already indicates the extremely one-sided nature of capitalist urban progress. This problem can be initially posed if we start from Roupnel’s reminder that ‘Western civilization is strictly speaking rural: towns only represent a later phenomenon, their form and material physiognomy conserving their rustic origins.’footnote4

If we bear in mind these rural origins it is clear that capitalist industrialism has involved not only a massive shift of human and material resources in favour of urban concentrations, but also a conquest over the countryside, which becomes ‘ruralized’, since it by no means represented in the past an exclusively agricultural milieu. From being a centre of all kinds of production, an autonomous primary sector that incorporates the whole of social production, the country becomes ‘agriculture’, i.e. a separate industry for food and raw materials, separated in turn into various specialized types of farming, districts, etc. All towns imply, of course, some kind of town-country differentiation: the extraction of food and manpower from the country is implied in the very definition of a town. But in every previous case the agrarian economy established the historical limits of town development until capitalist urbanization broke this Malthusian dependence. ‘The town only exists . . . in relation to a form of life subordinate to its own . . . It has to dominate an empire, however small, in order to exist.’footnote5

In precapitalist formations the victory of towns was always precarious, easily reversed; the growth of the cities was arrested, or wiped out altogether, according to their political domination of the country and the capacity to extract the agricultural surplus and fresh manpower which was their life blood. Under what conditions does urban growth acquire social forces and a momentum of its own that can break this dependence on the country for good? And where/when do we situate this ‘urban revolution’ as a key aspect of the transition to capitalism?

One answer is given by modern urbanization theory. But the typology of ‘generative’ and ‘parasitic’ cities as functional or non-functional to ‘growth’ (Hoselitz) assumes development as the paradigm against which we ‘measure’ the numerous urban failures to meet value criteria derived from industrial capitalism. It cannot explain these disparities as an intelligible diversified unity which can provide a basis for global comparison: instead it offers a proliferation of descriptive models, classifications of sub-species and multiplication of factors ad infinitum. The category ‘pre-industrial’, to which feudal towns are assimilated by Sjoberg, is similarly too inclusive: it cannot grasp the specific form of town—country opposition that led to capitalism in the West. Nor can quantitative and ecological classification (size and distribution of urban networks, applied by J. C. Russell to the European Middle Ages) provide any more than indices of urbanization, which cannot explain the countless cases of involution, regression and qualitative alteration in the hierarchy of size ratios in which urban history is so rich.footnote6

The most powerful strand of explanation goes back to Weber and Pirenne, arguing the peculiarly ‘generative’ character of the medieval European town based on its corporate, communal organization as a capitalist nucleus with the capacity to act as the solvent of feudal social relations. Thus ‘capitalism and towns were basically the same thing in the West’ (Braudel); the European towns’ corporate autonomy and the relative openness of their communal structure allowed them to ‘develop as autonomous worlds according to their own propensities’ (Weber). According to Pirenne’s enormously influential studies of medieval towns and commerce, the closing of the Mediterranean trade routes was the key to the substitution of an agrarian economy in the 7th—9th centuries: ‘For an economy of exchange was substituted an economy of consumption. Each demesne . . . constituted from this time on a little world of its own . . . a closed domestic economy . . . of no markets. They did not sell because they could not sell, because markets were wanting.’ Conversely, the reopening of long-distance trade from the 11th century—the counter-attack of Christianity against Islam—revived towns and markets (Italy, Flanders) and broke down the ‘rigid confines’ of the demesnial system. ‘As in antiquity the country oriented itself afresh on the city.’ But in this case the division of labour between town and country transformed the countryside: by ‘arousing his desires’ the city multiplied the peasant’s needs, raised his standard of living and so caused the end of serfdom, which ‘coincided with the increasing importance of liquid capital’. Urban trade drew agricultural production towards the town, ‘modernized it and set it free’. While the burghers’ own conception of freedom was still that of a privileged order, a corporate monopoly, ‘nonetheless to that middle class was reserved the mission of spreading the idea of liberty far and wide and of becoming, without having consciously desired to be, the means of the gradual enfranchisement of the rural classes . . . . It had not the power to arrest an evolution of which it was the cause and which it could not suppress save by itself vanishing.’footnote7 Smith might have had doubts about the timing but he would certainly have fully concurred with the substance.